Robert Waterman stands before the Hilltop House Hotel. Date unknown. Los Alamos Historical Society Photo
The Hilltop House during the winter of 1983-84. Photo from Waterman Collection of Los Alamos Historical Society Archives
BY WENDY HOFFMAN
Fixing food for firefighters. Housing a film crew. Hosting wedding receptions. Providing a productive venue for corporate meetings. In its venerable history, Hilltop House has done it all.
Its very core – that from which it was visioned and created – is much the same: a conglomeration of efficiency, service, pragmatism, and environmental benefits. It’s all of that plus an incredible combo of entrepreneurial spirit and construction materials.
The late Bob and Alice Waterman were in the hospitality business “for a long time,” said their son, Roger, who, shortly before his death on March 5, reminisced about the hotel, which is being demolished. Knowing the demo was coming, he said that’s OK, because the facility provided for so many community needs for more than 30 years.
“It’s outside of the market, on the edge of town, and there’s nothing left worth salvaging. It would face some remediation issues, so if it can be replaced with something else, that’s OK,” he said. And that statement pretty much sums up the Waterman family business philosophy: conceptualize, reuse, repurpose, recycle, move, and move forward (all for the good of the town).
Roger said he and his dad flew a small plane to western New Mexico circa 1964 and “landed on old (Route) 66”, closed by then to accommodate Interstate 40. There, they bought a little motel and subsequently moved it to Los Alamos, where they placed it at the northeast corner of 15th and Trinity. They named it Los Alamos Motor Lodge and included what he termed a little hamburger joint. Those buildings, he said, are still in their original location, now serving as offices, retail establishments, and one medical facility, Trinity Urgent Care.
Roger and his younger brother, Ted, were contracted in 1973 to take down Kirtland Air Force Base post-war barracks. Seeing another hospitality opportunity, Bob Waterman and his partner, Benny Moore, bought four of the barracks from the brothers’ salvage business and brought them to White Rock where they became the 24-room White Rock Motor Lodge. To the delight of the children who watched, that was later lifted so a new first floor could be built under the original structure, and the size of the motel doubled.
After experiencing success with those ventures, the elder Waterman thought another hotel, with more amenities, was needed in the relatively young but growing county. In the mid-70s, he had purchased the former Fina Gas garage built by the federal government at the convergence of Trinity Drive and Central Avenue for its fuel depot. Fleet vehicles were parked behind it on the site of the present MariMac shopping center.
Concurrently, Roger was in Gallup taking down Manuelito Hall, a former school for Native American children. He said he had a lot of 2x4s for sale, so his dad bought them and used them, with steel also procured from the boys’ salvage business, for framing the beginnings of the hotel inside the fuel depot garage. Soon they had a lobby, a gas station and guest rooms. Then, Roger said, “Dad decided we needed a café” and Hilltop House Café was born. “The café went well,” he added.
Also included in the unusual project were bar joists from an old Safeway store in Farmington being salvaged by Bob’s brother, “Uncle Jack,” Roger added. They were used for railings for the hotel. But repurposing materials wasn’t the end of the story.
By the late ‘70s, Roger said, the brothers established a home-building business in a facility at Santo Domingo Pueblo. With oldest sibling Kent joining the operation, they named it Namretaw (which, like ecnalubmA, works best in the rear view mirror) and dived into a new experience. “We had never really built anything from scratch,” he said. True to their innovative style, they created a conveyor system on which houses would be assembled and then moved to the buyers’ locations. At least two church rectories in town were Namretaw homes. But just as that was getting underway, personnel involved with a movie being filmed in the Jemez wanted to rent rooms – a lot of rooms – at Hilltop House. The facility didn’t have enough to accommodate everyone so the brothers kicked Namretaw into high gear and constructed hotel rooms instead of houses. With the ability to transport four 24-by-24-foot sections per truckload, they were able to bring the hotel from 42 up to 92 rooms and sign on for the filming.
Roger commented that “everything we did was the result of something else,” and that was certainly true for the advent of Trinity Sights, the eventual elegant second-floor hotel restaurant with views to die for and a history like no other in town.
“The little café had only 30 seats,” he said, “and couldn’t handle” the demands of a 92-room facility. So, in true Waterman fashion, they looked to other projects with which they had involvement. Those included demolition of the old Navajo Freight depot in Albuquerque (Roger) and taking down a variety of buildings at the Amarillo, TX, Army air base (Ted).
Roger said the latter project included a church with wooden arches that just happened to fit the proposed outline for the restaurant above the convenience store at Hilltop House. They huddled and decided that steel from the freight project and the chapel arches could both be used for Trinity Sights, assuming safety standards were met.
“We hired a local civil engineer to evaluate the graded structural steel for use” in a multi-level project, he said. The answer? “Yes it is safe and will work.” So, he said, “Dad bought the church from Ted and had it delivered to Los Alamos,” but then they discovered a potential glitch. “The wooden structure was 4-5 feet too tall for wind shear on the restaurant.” As with other projects, safety measures prevailed, and they cut back the legs of the arches. “I was the guy placing (the arches),” Roger noted with a grin.
After other appropriate adjustments were effected, Trinity Sights was born, becoming a preferred venue for community events requiring a dignified yet welcoming ambiance. With the Hilltop House Café location now vacant, other business could move in. Roger said Real Estate Associates (REA), owned by Jane Hoffman and Barbara Bohl, occupied the building for a few years, until it was time for it to be removed from the property. “I gave them a year’s notice,” he said, “and then we picked up the café, moved it to White Rock and put it down on Rover.” It is next to what is now Herman’s Automotive, and is called Herman’s Auto Body, he said.
Following the Waterman pattern, opening a restaurant above the gas station and its attendant convenience store prompted yet more changes, he said. Although it had never been declared in violation of any codes or other standards, the family was uncomfortable having a gas station immediately below the new eatery. “We moved the lobby to the south end of the hotel, so we had a new lobby with some 2-bedroom suites above it. We had two reasons for the move: We didn’t like having the gas station under the restaurant, and we needed to replace the fuel tanks.”
So away went the store and station to the north end of the building, where the former underwent upgrading and became the Hilltop DeliMart. But that still didn’t accomplish everything the family wanted to bring to the community.
With such a classy facility emerging, Roger said, their thinking drifted to “We’re going to need meeting space.” As they looked over their land and building, he said, they found they had enough for two more 2-bedroom suites and 2500-3000 square feet of meeting space. And yes, it was back to their unique supply chain system.
“The lab had dismantled their library floor,” Waterman said. “We went to the salvage yard and bought their interlocking flooring, and we used more steel from Navajo Freight, and we had meeting space.” They finished off their years-long project by installing moveable dividers to make the room adaptable to a large group or several small ones.
Most County residents who’ve been in town more than two decades will have had at least one trip up the elevator to Trinity Sights for a romantic dinner, lunch with a business associate, or a company party. As the town prepares to say final goodbyes to this iconic place, which the family sold to an investor in 2005, Hilltop House leaves behind testimony to the many benefits of a home-owned small family business, created with ingenuity and love for the community, and the distinction of being constructed in an environmentally friendly system that was perhaps years ahead of its time.
“We were in (the salvage business) to make money or save money,” Roger said. And yet, this strapping big guy, who once hauled a railroad car to Montana and back for a movie, said he still felt personal ties to the reuse, repurpose, recycle methods his family employed for so many years. “Every time I see something being torn down instead of taken apart, it hurts me,” he said. “With labor changes, materials are more difficult to salvage. Salvage is just not feasible any more for small companies. So these materials just get thrown away.”
On the other side of that coin, however, are the memories and dreams created inside Hilltop House and Trinity Sights and maybe even in the little Hilltop House Café. Those are too precious to ever be lost, discarded, or thrown away.